Rock climbing is testing a controversial new competition format for its Olympic debut

After surfing, skateboarding and 3×3 basketball, Tokyo sees the arrival of a new Olympic sport on Tuesday: rock climbing. The event will have a unique format combining three very different climbing styles – a decision that has caused some feathers for fans of the sport.

In many of the iconic Olympic sports, athletes specialize in hyper-specific disciplines: the 100-meter butterfly, the 800-meter run, the beam or the pole vault. Those battling for the podium in the Games’ climbing debut will face a very different kind of challenge: a hybrid of three different competitions, normally divided into separate championships.

Bouldering, lead climbing and speed climbing go together in Tokyo under the name “sport climbing”. There will be only two sets of medals – one for men and one for women – with 20 athletes on each side.

“In order not to exclude any of the activities, the International Federation has decided to merge the three disciplines; it has become a combination of the three,” Pierre-Henri Paillasson, National Technical Director of the French Federation of Mountaineering and Climbing (FFME), told FRANCE 24. “So the athletes here are not specialized in all three disciplines.”

The three areas encompass very different sets of skills. Lead involves climbing a 15-foot wall and clipping your rope from carabiners along the route as you ascend. You only get one try, and whoever gets closest to the top wins.

Bouldering is more technical, with a lower wall (4.5m) that you climb without a rope. The routes are known as “trouble,” which climbers try to mentally map out before hitting the wall. In competition, climbers are given a total of five minutes to solve a particular problem, study it and reach the final grip in as few attempts as possible.

The speed race is simply a sprint to the top, again on a 15 meter wall, but this time with a standardized course of twenty holds. The route, with its five-degree overhang and red, amoeba-shaped holds, is identical in climbing gyms around the world.

“You have to tap into different skills for each discipline,” Cécile Avezou, coach of the French lead climbing team, told FRANCE 24. “For the speed event, it’s about explosive power. For bouldering, it’s strength, imagination and creativity. Lead climbing requires a more sustained effort. effort, so it involves adaptation, information gathering and control.”

Speed ​​climbing: the ‘least attractive’ format?

The combination of the three events does not sit well with all athletes. The inclusion of speed climbing in particular bothers many, who argue that it lacks the problem-solving element common to both bouldering and lead climbing.

Czech climber Adam Ondra, currently the top-ranked climber in the world, fears the speed event could cost him Olympic gold.

“It’s really the least attractive, least comprehensible format of all the climbing formats imaginable,” he told the New York Times. “Yes that’s right [always] part of the climbing, but it was a very narrow group of people who devoted themselves to the speed.”

*climbing cap on* speed climbing is equal weighted with lead and bouldering is .. crazy. just a totally unique discipline

— maria hoter (@heetermaria) July 24, 2021

It’s not that Ondra isn’t well rounded: he’s actually known as one of the rare climbers who excels both outdoors and in competition, including bouldering. But on the speed route, it could well be one of the slowest in Tokyo. At 7.46 seconds, his best time in competition is almost 50 percent slower than Indonesia’s record holder Veddriq Leonardo, at 5.2 seconds.

Others have complained that speed climbing was only included because it makes for good TV, or even claimed a Russian conspiracy, as modern speed climbing developed largely in the Soviet Union. (Russian funding for the sport, however, largely evaporated after 1989, and other countries have caught up.)

Whatever the reason for the hybrid competition, it will not last longer than the Tokyo Games.

“This is a first step, the combination of the three disciplines. In the 2024 Games in Paris there will be a second step – that is, the speed event will be separate from the combined bouldering and lead climbing,” Avezou explained.

For now, some speed climbing specialists hope the joint format could be their ticket to a medal. And along the way they hope to win some of their less enthusiastic colleagues into the discipline.

“When I stand at the foot of the wall, my only thought is to reach the buzzer at the top as quickly as possible,” France’s Anouck Jaubert told FRANCE 24. “To succeed, you have to be technical, know how to must position your body, move your center of gravity.”

All of these skills are also crucial when leading climbing and bouldering. But speed requires an extra leg boost — and a willingness to zip up the same route endlessly.

A French favourite

Jaubert will be joined by three teammates in Tokyo, making France one of the best represented countries on the climbing walls, along with the United States and Japan. It suits a country that played a key role in the development of modern climbing.

In 1492 France witnessed the first major recorded ascent using mechanical tools, after King Charles VIII ordered a military captain to climb the 2000m high Mont Aiguille – then known as “Mount Inaccessible”. The captain relied on hooks, ladders and his experience in besieging medieval castles to make the near-vertical climb, in an early feat of mountaineering.

Four centuries later, at the end of the 19th century, members of the newly formed French Alpine Club began to gather in the Fontainebleau forest, outside Paris, to practice their technique on the unique collection of boulders. Today, Fontainebleau remains one of the most iconic bouldering destinations in the world and gets its name from one of the three main rating systems used to rate the difficulty of climbs.

Even the current standardized speed climbing route was determined in 2005 by a French climber, Jacky Godoffe.

In Tokyo, however, the French team faces stiff competition, including Ondra from the Czech Republic; six-time world champion Janja Garnbret, from Slovenia; Tomoa Narasaki and Akiyo Noguchi from Japan; and Rishat Khaibullin of Kazakhstan.

The preliminary rounds take place on Tuesday and Wednesday, for the men’s final on Thursday 5 August and the women’s final on Friday.

The sport’s governing bodies hope that, despite a somewhat shaky start, the presence of climbing at the Olympics will only add to its burgeoning popularity. Climbing has boomed in recent years, fueled in part by the 2018 film “Free Solo” in the Paris area alone, about a dozen climbing schools have opened in the past decade, including five in the past year and a half. despite the pandemic.

At this rate, one thing is certain: the sport is far from reaching its peak – and it is climbing faster than ever.

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